Friday, February 24, 2006

I just joined LibraryThing, which I saw as just another fun internet time-waster that would eventually give me a spreadsheet of all my books. Check out my profile.

Today, the owner announced a radical new feature. Users can merge editions and separate editions. This is what social search is all about. As he says in the post:
Starting three days ago, I announced a trial project to let users determine what books belonged together, the first time anything like this has been attempted. Using simple check boxes, users could go through a favorite author's works, combining and separating editions as necessary.

The response has been startling to say the least: In three days, users have combined 17,000 times, mashing together 42,000 works! Users have spent hours at the task, and debated the nuances in a blog post that now sports 182 comments. Although only a few of these Christmas elves are actual librarians, but most are experts on the authors they labor over. As one wrote on the blog, Isaac Asimov's Nightfall the short story collection, is distinct from Nightfall the novel and from Nightfall One. Do libraries know that? Does Amazon?
Certainly libraries know that. There are countless little cataloging elves spending long hours researching these very topics. Amazon? Well, not so much, I'm sure. I imagine Mr. LibraryThing will be getting some very kind offers for his sweet, sweet data in the near future. That's not what's important, though. These users are interpreting this data in such a way that it will be intelligible to other fans and readers. As someone who worked in libraries in college, separating circulation records from badly-chosen bibliographic records and vice versa, I know this can be a huge job.

As I watch the LibraryThing data grow, I see lots of the typical problems of social sites like this: people use them for their own purposes. That's fine, the more data it gets, the less these unique entries will muddy the waters.